Our Story Begins:
Being the Child of a Journalist
I was on a walk with my 13-year-old son the other day and he asked me why my job – I am a journalist – has gotten such a terrible reputation.
That’s a difficult question to answer on a half-hour walk.
It’s hard not to see why the question comes up. Put the current political climate aside for a few minutes. A Gallup poll from December of 2016 shows that more than 40% of those polled thought American journalists’ ethics and honesty were “low” or “very low.”
So when my son watches television and everyone from politicians to the very media that people decry are saying things like how what I do fakes stories, makes things up, and has no ethics – to the point people start calling us an enemy of the American people – he’s confused. Trying to make that description match with the other descriptions he has of me. After all, to him, I’m “Dad.” There’s no “Journalist-Dave” followed by “Musician-Dave”, “Chef-Dave”, “Baker-Dave”, “Guy-friend Dave (boyfriend sounds so damn junior high to me)” and so on and so forth.
But I had to give him some understanding of why I do things, too. I believe in what I do, which may sound cheesy or strange to some people. I gave my son a refresher in civics: there are three estates in government: the Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch, and the Judicial Branch. But somewhere along the line, they began to call an industry the fourth estate.
There is a reason the very first amendment to the Constitution of the United States talks about freedom of speech as well as freedom of the press. The press . . . is the fourth estate. The founding fathers put an amazing set of checks and balances in place that keeps governmental power in balance. The fourth estate – those same journalists 41% of people polled think are not trustworthy – are the last check. We are the last gatekeepers.
So my son asks me: how do I act in an era when people call stories they don’t agree with “fake news” or they take a small snippet of a story out-of-context and it goes crazy on social media?
The honest truth is it’s more important than ever that I get things right. Yes…every news outlet has retractions. Yes…we are all human. Yes…we tell stories that sometimes, people just don’t want to hear about. But when things happen we give information.
I got this lesson from my mother. On February 1st of 2003, I was driving like mad through the rural highways of east Texas. The Space Shuttle Columbia had broken apart during re-entry. Along the way I had to slam on the brakes to avoid a piece of the shuttle, heat-resistant tiles charred, lying in the middle of the road. We found a shoulder harness and a mission patch, both charred and in the ditches of the road. While shooting video I saw NASA representatives come out of the woods, GPS locators on their backs, red biohazard bags in hand.
I hated my job that day. On a good day, there’s a story . . . a problem. If an attack happens, there are terrorists you can track. If a flooding happens, there’s a cause, effect, a problem. This . . . there was no good guy or bad guy. This was a tragedy and I was documenting it as it unfolded. It hurt.
My coverage of the Columbia is one of the first things my mother brings up all the time and I finally asked her why? I hated those days, having to just give dreadful news and there’s nothing you can do about it. She told me I was one of the best sources of information. Without journalists like me, there was no information, no one knew what was happening . . . and people wanted to know.
So yes: there are stories that are fake. Yes: there are people who are on TV who just yell, scream, and push their biases on people. Yes: there are times I want to look to the heavens.
But my son is proud of what I do. I do my best and it’s even more important that I check, re-check and re-check my facts. I should anyway.
But at the end of the day, my son tells me he doesn’t care. He likes my job . . . but more importantly, at the end of the day . . . I’m his dad. I’m always there for him, too, when he needs me.
That is what is important.